By Ashley Shaffer
“What’s your favorite plant in the garden, Avery?”
Jessica Jackowski watches her two-year-old son scamper past stevia plants, strawberry and blueberry bushes, lemon balm weeds and the many other thriving plants covering every inch of her yard. He stops next to a group of bright yellow-orange flowers, quickly bends over, tucking his head between his knees while wrapping his arms around his legs. He yells with a smile across his face, “Calendula!”
But he doesn’t only know the plant’s name. “This is for my booboos; my mommy puts some Calendula on my cuts and then a band-aid,” Avery says as he begins picking clusters of petals off the flowers and eating them. “It’s also good for tea and popsicles,” he says.
“Why don’t you show your other favorite plant, the lemon balm?” Jessica says to him.
“Just one more petal,” he says, and stuffs a few more yellow petals into his tiny mouth.
Jackowski is an urban homesteader, someone who takes an ordinary yard and fills it with thriving vegetation and animals to help sustain herself and her family. She hasn’t always been a homesteader. Six years ago, Jackowski and her partner, Matt Lutter, both quit their jobs and went on a six-month backpacking trip through the 2,000 mile Appalachian Mountain trail. At the time, Jackowski, struggling through depression and sickness, was working on finishing her schooling at the University of Delaware where she worked with recombinant DNA in a lab. Lutter, an optical engineer, was working for the Department of Defense in Washington DC specializing in infrared testing.
“I started having a little crisis with waste,” Jackowski says. “I just couldn’t see the value in doing all this research if they were just going to pollute the environment.” Lutter, on the other hand, “was working for the war machine,” she says.
She says they were like many people in their mid-20s, just trying to figure out what to do with their lives and the things they believed in. She and Lutter realized they needed to change their lifestyles. With both of their jobs being dissatisfying they decided to, “just do something totally different and just go soul searching for a while,” she recalled.
They packed up all the belongings they needed and began their hiking journey on the summer solstice of 2006, not realizing at the time how much the trip would change their lives. Trekking on average 15 miles per day, they heard nothing but the sound of nature and birds singing as they walked. “You’re just in this meditation for a long time, a walking meditation,” Jackowski says. She discovered a shift in consciousness by walking and being in the wilderness for such a long time. She said she liked, “waking up when the sun comes up and not being inside all the time, just being more connected with the environment around us.”
While on the hike, Jackowski had an epiphany that shaped her future tremendously. “I was hiking, and I was just staring at the ground and I thought, what’s soil?” Jackowski says, laughing. After studying biology at the University of Delaware, she couldn’t grasp why she had no recollection of what soil was. She asked Lutter, who she says seemed to know just about everything, and he gave his best description. But that wasn’t good enough for her. “From that point on I just became obsessed with soil and it’s become my life now,” she says.
Jackowski, with her epiphany in mind, moved to Eugene where Lutter’s sister was living at the time, and began taking classes on permaculture at Lane Community College. Lutter also jumped back into schooling and began taking classes on energy management and learning about sustainable living and managing resources. Today, he works for the Eugene Water & Electric Board as an energy management specialist. Eventually, they bought a home in the Friendly Neighborhood in Eugene. “We moved here, and it was perfect,” she says. They soon began transforming their yard into a thriving urban homestead, leaving no soil untouched. “We had been without roots, so to speak, for so many years and just floating around, so it was nice to sink our teeth in and find somewhere that we can settle,” she says. On the land, she and Lutter raise more than 200 different plants, six hens, a rabbit, and red wiggler worms for compost. Lutter says that they try to mimic the wilderness that they hiked with their garden.
“This is my lab here, and I’m learning so much,” she says as a ladybug slowly creeps across the brim of her straw hat. Avery, who has been raised entirely on organic food mostly grown from the yard, in a different part of the garden, says, “The summer poppies are here!”
He walks by his mother and says, “I want the green shovel, Mommy.”
Unlike his mother before her epiphany, Avery already knows much about soil – and will probably always be ready to dig in.